Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Swarm Intelligence of Ants -- and of the Jury?

I was at an academic conference recently at which a couple of eminent speakers questioned (nay, affirmed) the (ir)rationality of trial by jury. However, am generally of a different mind: I am inclined to think that juries generally get it right -- "it" being, among other things, the facts -- more often than a single professional judge does or than would,say, a randomly-selected group of law teachers. So I was interested in the following recent reminder of swarm intelligence in ants, a reminder that set me to musing once again whether such swarm intelligence exists among groups of human beings such as juries and, if so, in what way and about what sorts of matters: Steve Jones, "E pluribus Unum, NYTimes Book Review (Nov. 21, 2008) (review of Bert Hölldobler & Edward O. Wilson, THE SUPERORGANISM: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008):
A few simple rules produce what appears to be intelligence, but is in fact entirely mindless. Individuals are automatons. An ant stumbles on a tasty item and brings a piece back to the nest, wandering as it does and leaving a trail of scent. A second ant tracks that pathway back to the source, making random swerves of its own. A third, a fourth, and so on do the same, until soon the busy creatures converge on the shortest possible route, marked by a highway of pheromones. This phenomenon has some useful applications for the social animals who study it. Computer scientists fill their machines with virtual ants and task them with finding their way through a maze, leaving a coded signal as they pass until the fastest route emerges. That same logic helps plan efficient phone networks and the best use of the gates at J.F.K. In the phone system each message leaves a digital “pheromone” as it passes through a node, and the fastest track soon emerges. Swarm intelligence does wondrous things.
'Tis a fact, isn't it, that no single person could have constructed the Empire State Building, invented the micro-chip, or, even, have thought of and have assembled a functioning pressurized rubberized automobile tire? Therefore(?) ... a jury of twelve people can assess can assess ...(?)... [e.g., jealousy as motivation for murder?]... better than any single person can?

the dynamic evidence page


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